If you think the risks of escalation in the Ukraine war are trivial, the tragic deaths of two Polish citizens from an errant Ukrainian air defense missile on Tuesday should give you some pause. A big war is underway in Ukraine, and even if the adversaries are trying to be careful, big wars are messy affairs rife with uncertainty and filled with unintended consequences. Weapons malfunction, local commanders don’t always follow orders, and the fog of war makes it hard to discern what the enemy is doing and easy to misread their intentions.
Although cooler heads soon prevailed in this incident, it still illustrates the potential for accidental or inadvertent escalation. When reports that a missile had hit Polish territory were first announced, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it an “escalation” by Russia while Polish officials spoke of invoking Articles 4 and 5 of the NATO treaty, framing the event as a threat to the security of the alliance. Once the true origins of the “attack” were understood, Western officials were quick to absolve Ukraine of any responsibility for the tragedy, noting (correctly) that Ukraine had fired the errant missile to defend itself against Russian missile strikes on critical infrastructure, and reminding everyone that Russia started the war and is illegally occupying Ukrainian territory.